A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column (August 30, 1996) about aloneness and family which argued that God meant the words: “It is not good to be alone” not just psychologically, but also morally and in terms of human maturity. In essence, I suggested that when we are alone, free from the demands and challenges that come from family and community, it is easier to become selfish and give ourselves over to our addictions. I stated, among other things, that living alone can be morally dangerous.
There was a very strong reaction, most of it negative, to that piece. I have received a good number of letters, many of which pained me – not because they were critical of what I had written but because, from them, I realized how much my words have caused pain in some peoples’ lives. I realize now, unfortunately after the fact, that what I wrote in that article was open to considerable misunderstanding. So, by way of apology, let me try to clarify what I tried to say there … even if that is not what the words said to everyone:
First of all, the title itself (Selfishness and Solitude) already sent out the wrong signal, suggesting to some that solitude is perhaps a form of selfishness. The choice of title was not mine and it was never my intention to suggest that it is more selfish to be in solitude than in family, especially since, properly understood, solitude and family are not in opposition to each other, enemies, but two states which positively feed and enhance each other. To be in true solitude is to be in family.
Carlo Carretto, the great spiritual writer, once spent a prolonged period of time living by himself in the desert. When he returned to Italy to visit his mother, he realized that she was more contemplative than he was, even though because of her duties as a mother she rarely had any quiet or prayer time. The conclusion he drew was not that there was anything wrong with what he was doing in solitude, but rather that there was something very right about what his mother was doing in giving herself over to her family in such a way that she had no time left for the type of solitude which he was living. In essence, in that fated column, I was trying to say the same thing: There is nothing wrong with solitude – but there is something eminently right about giving yourself over to the demands, duties, and challenges that flow from family and commitment.
One woman wrote to me, pained and upset by what I had written, protesting that she had just spent her wedding anniversary alone – deserted by her husband and geographically separated from her children. Her protest: “How can it be wrong to be alone, especially when I didn’t even choose to be alone? How can you be so cruel as to suggest that it is?”
Her pain caused me pain and, to her and to others like her, I sincerely apologize: I am sorry that my words were heard in this sense. That was not their intent. In fact, their aim was exactly the opposite. They were meant to challenge those who do positively choose to live alone, namely, those who refuse to make or keep commitments because they want the freedom, privacy, and aloneness to do their own thing. My words were meant as a challenge to people, like her ex-husband, who abandon commitments to spouses, families, and relatives precisely to be “alone” for purposes that their families would not exactly judge as good.
There are different ways of being alone. The woman whose words I just quoted feels the emotional pain of being physically alone and she admits that it is not good. But it is not morally wrong to be alone in this way. In fact, lived out creatively, this kind of loneliness can give birth to compassion and an understanding that is not given to others.
But that is not the kind of aloneness of which I was speaking. There is an aloneness which is dangerous and which inevitably spawns selfishness. To offer just a couple of examples: The person who abandons his or her spouse and family so as to be free from them and “alone” in order to pursue somebody or something else is living dangerously. His or her being alone is not a good thing, morally. The same is true for the addict, irrespective of the particular addiction. Invariably he or she is looking to be alone so as to have the freedom and the privacy to attend to the addiction. This, obviously, is not good.
In these cases, however, the person is positively choosing to be alone, looking to be alone, and resentful of any spouse, family member, or commitment that stands in his or her way. It is this person who needs, again, to be challenged by God’s words: “It is not good to be alone!”